Cyclists risk nerve damage from uneven street surfaces

Dr Mark Taylor on his databike. Photograph: Edinburgh Napier University
Dr Mark Taylor on his databike. Photograph: Edinburgh Napier University
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CYCLISTS are at risk of permanent nerve damage because of poor road surfaces in Scottish cities, research using a innovative measuring bike has revealed.

Vibration caused by uneven streets and cycle paths can cause Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (Havs).

A study by Edinburgh Napier University found cyclists were at risk of developing the condition after pedalling for as little as 16 minutes on the worst surfaces, such as cobbles.

Dr Mark Taylor, who built an innovative measuring “databike”, plans to devise a cycling vibration route map to help riders avoid the worst stretches and highlight areas for improvement. Taylor, a civil engineer who commutes by bike 12 miles a day, said better surfaces were also crucial to encourage more people to cycle. The databike has a camera, sensors and computer to record vibration levels. He got the idea after realising the need to find a way to record poor surfaces after his seven-year-old daughter fell off her bike when it hit a bump caused by tree roots.

He said: “The minute you get onto a poorly maintained surface you’re getting a substantial duration of vibration exposure that’s being transferred up through your arms and into your shoulders. Continued exposure to such vibration levels over commuter journeys may lead to discomfort and potentially cause harm.” A clinical study is planned to prove the link.

Professor Chris Oliver, a consultant trauma orthopaedic hand surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh who is involved in the research, said: “The vibrations transmitted from some surfaces to cyclists’ hands, arms and wrists can cause Havs. This can equate to significant damage to nerves and blood vessels in the arms. It can include numbness in the fingers and cold can trigger painful finger blanching attacks. Havs can be a disability and can prevent people cycling, especially in our cold winters.

Continued exposure to vibration over commuter journeys may cause harm

“Cyclists should avoid road surfaces that may expose them to Havs. The damage from Havs can’t be reversed but reducing vibration exposure can help reduce the symptoms.

“Although some cycle paths and roads are riddled with dangerous potholes, it’s continual vibration over time that’s more significant.”

Dave du Feu of cycling campaigners Spokes said some cobbles were a particular risk. “It is not just a matter of discomfort, but a cobbled or potholed surface distracts the cyclist’s attention very significantly from the traffic and is a serious road danger,” he said. He said round-topped setts, such as on the High Street in Edinburgh below North Bridge, were “very bad”, but flat-topped ones, like those around the High Street/George IV junction, were “quite acceptable”.

Du Feu said the impact on riders using some bikes, such as those with smaller or narrower wheels, may be ever greater.

He said: “The position is likely to be significantly worse for other types of bike, such as the Brompton folding ones which are now very common, particularly for people commuting into the centre of Edinburgh by train.”

Edinburgh City Council transport convener Lesley Macinnes said: “We want to ensure all routes are as well used as possible, so would encourage the public to report any problems and defects they spot on cycle lanes on the council website or by telephone.”

A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman said: “The council is keen to incorporate such data into the assessment of cycle lanes. This method can highlight where investment to improve the condition of the surface is required and where the surface is of the required quality.

“In combination with other data, the implications of this are of smarter investment, the ability to prioritise improvements and to identify where sections are of the required quality. This can result in savings and intelligently targeted investment.

“Whilst vibration for certain surfaces could, with extended continuous exposure, cause harm, in regard to cycle lanes these would be fleeting and are more assigned to the vibration of a 10 mm height drop kerb or a more obvious surface such as a cobbled streets.

“Certain factors within the cyclist’s control such as type of bike being used, tyre width and pressure, even wearing cycling gloves have an effect on how much vibration is transmitted to the rider.”